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  • Bill Cleveland

One story at a time

I found this old thing in my archival dustbin. But most of it still seems to resonate. See if you can place it in time. (the answer is at the end)

The other day I blurted out a spontaneous Rorschach of an idea about America and its place in the world. It goes like this: We (meaning the USA, and its partners in the uber-consuming west) are an intrinsic part of an amorphous self-perpetuating amalgam called the “cumulative monster.” But, because all of us are so caught up in the evolved DNA of this beast it is very hard for us see ourselves as co-conspirators in the monster's smothering murder of the world. In essence, our collective shadow is so big we can't see it ---- we can't own it.

Predictably, as the stench of the beast has spread, more and more of us are looking for a "noxious other" to pin it on. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that it is becoming increasingly clear, that this "us" vs "them" default is not only not working, it is part of the problem. In very short order we have traveled from the twentieth century --- where personified demons like Hitler, Stalin, the KKK, etc. were so easy to perceive as a separate species--- to the Twenty First Century ---where our collective, interconnected, interdependent responsibility for everything from the environment, to human rights, to peace is as unavoidable as breathing. This is a massively difficult perceptual leap that calls into question the prevailing worldview that has defined "progress" and driven human events for the last 5000 years.

I think a lot of the conflict rising up around the world is a visceral reaction to one of the most obvious symptoms of this worldview upheaval---the breathtakingly rapid disintegration of what President Obama called in his (first) inaugural address “the lines of tribes.” This is a scary thing for a lot of people. On one hand we are regularly being confronted by the collective karma of global inter-connection. On the other, the thing that defines us “my place”, “my family”, “my community’” ---each tribe's unique sense of itself as compared other tribes---is perceived by many as under direct attack by this same tsunami of interconnectedness. It is not surprising that that many in the world feel they are in a fight for survival.

In his book, The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community, my friend David Korten makes an impassioned plea for a new values narrative, a new set of stories, to counteract the crises of environmental destruction, rampant materialism, growing inequality, and degradation of democratic institutions. I have mentioned this book in this blog before this but I think it’s message bears repeating. Korten calls on people to work together in local communities and in networks of congruence globally to bring a new structure to society based on several principles:

The cultural principles of Earth Community affirm the spiritual unity and interconnectedness of Creation. They favor respect for all beings, nonviolence, service to community, and the stewardship of common resources for the benefit of generations to come. The economic principles of Earth Community affirm the basic right of every person to a means of livelihood and the responsibility of each person to live in a balanced relationship with their place on Earth without expropriating the resources of others. The political principles of Earth Community affirm the inherent worth and potential of all individuals and their right to a voice in the decisions that shape their lives, thereby favoring inclusive citizen engagement, cooperative problem solving, and restorative justice.

To realize a society based on these principles, Korten argues that we need to recognize that our relationships to each other and to nature are matters of choice, not inevitability. But it often seems that these choices are not possible. Why? Our sense of powerlessness stems from the fact that we have been taught to believe a series of stories about how prosperity, security, and meaning are created. These stories, the imperial stories, favor concentration of power and wealth over more equitable forms of living. New stories are needed to provide the foundation for new beliefs about prosperity, security and meaning—stories based on the principles of Earth Community. For example, the belief that prosperity results from an ever-enlarging pie, part of which will trickle down, needs to be replaced by the recognition that “true prosperity depends on life-serving economies that satisfy our basic material needs, maintain a sustainable balance with Earth’s natural systems, strengthen the bonds of caring communities, and support all persons in the full realization of their humanity.

How these new stories are created, shared and turned into action is a big part of what Pat Shifferd and I address in our book Between Grace and Fear: The Role of the Arts in a Time of Change. I know this is my perpetual soapbox topic, but I can’t help thinking that our sense of hopelessness in the face of what appears to be insurmountable problems precipitated by enormous forces beyond our control is in fact one of the most powerful of the Empire stories. The antidote to this way of thinking is of course is as simple as it is audacious --- each day, each moment that we encounter our fellow workers, our neighbors, our family members, and most of all our kids, is an opportunity to insinuate a small part of a different story into the narrative of the world. The altered worldview we need to change course will be created in much the same manner as the current version was--- from person to person, from heart to heart, one dance, one song, one painting, one story at a time.

Fall 2010

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